In the Netherlands children usually start going to school when they're four years old. The first two years of elementary school (group 1 and group 2) are comparable to the American and German kindergarten. The children spend most of their time playing in educational centers and corners, learning all kinds of skills that are necessary for when they start going to what Americans would call "first grade", but we call "group 3". This is the group where they start learning to read and write and do math and such. After this, things are pretty much comparable to the American elementary school, until the end of group 8 (American sixth grade). All children take a test, called the Cito test. The results of this exam, combined with the teacher's advice, decides to which type of school the kids will go after elementary.
In my country middle school and high school are one. There are three types: VWO, HAVO and VMBO. I'll generalize a little to makes things easier to understand.
- VWO (Voortgezet Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs or Higher Scientific Education) is for the most intelligent children. It's a six year school whose diploma qualifies for medical school, law school, and other types of higher university.
- HAVO stands for Hoger Algemeen Voortgezet Onderwijs, which translates into Higher General Secondary Education. After five years of HAVO you can go to HBO (Hoger BeroepsOnderwijs, or Higher Vocational Education). You go to HBO if you want to be a teacher, nurse, engineer, social worker, controller, finance specialist, there are all kinds of things possible.
- VMBO is Voorbereidend Middelbaar BeroepsOnderwijs. This means Preparing Middle Vocational Education. The kids in this type of school are the ones I teach. It's the lowest level of school, and very practically oriented. It only takes four years, so you graduate when you're 16/17.
The kids I teach are the future plumbers, construction workers, beauticians, assistant nurses and waiters of the Netherlands. It's a four year school, where the kids do a lot. They don't spend a lot of time learning from books, but they learn by doing. If you walk around our school you can see kids cooking, building brick walls, welding and washing each other's hair.
As you can see in the image, it's possible to "move up". If you've taken the highest level of VMBO (which is subdivided into 4 levels, but I'll explain about that later) you can obtain a HAVO-diploma by going to school for two more years. The same works if you have a HAVO-diploma and want to continue on to VWO.
Complicated, isn't it? I think it works well though. We have a way lower drop-out rate than many other countries. The practical people don't have to worry about books, and the book people don't have to worry about to much "doing". Almost everybody has a place where their intelligence fits in. And that's the most important thing.